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Thursday, March 6
Updated: March 24, 4:02 PM ET
Broncos roll the dice on inconsistent Plummer

By Len Pasquarelli

There is that nickname, the one Mike Shanahan has never publicly tried to disavow, and which some who have worked with the Denver Broncos coach in the past insist he privately embraces.

The Mastermind.

Yep, that is how some locals still refer to Shanahan in the league's Rocky Mountain precinct.

Once upon a time, like when Shanahan shepherded the team to consecutive Super Bowl titles in 1997 and '98, the name was a good fit. But these days, it seems, Shanahan retains the flattering moniker for only two reasons.

Jake Plummer
Jake Plummer has never thrown 20 touchdown passes in a season.
He has mastered the art of verbal trickery, of convincing people that because you can fill a grease board with esoteric offensive hieroglyphics and burn the midnight oil in pursuit of the perfect pass protection scheme, the outcome will be victories. And second, a rabid fan base taken in by this sleight-of-tongue doesn't seem to mind that the Broncos have failed to win a single playoff game since their victory in Super Bowl XXXIII.

In case anyone forgot, that Super Bowl game was the final appearance for John Elway, whose blubbering retirement announcement came months later. It has been suggested by many that, even as Elway agonized over a decision regarding his future, Shanahan was greasing the skids, nudging him toward the stage left exit and planning for life in the post-John Boy universe.

The claim was that Shanahan desperately wanted to prove that he could win without a quarterback he inherited, sought to develop his own guy, desired a Vince Lombardi Trophy minus Elway's fingerprints on it.

Whether that is true or not, quite frankly, isn't germane to this discussion.

What is pertinent is that, since the Elway retirement, Shanahan's coaching record is 34-31. The Broncos have been to the playoffs just once in the last four years, a wild-card berth in 2002, and were summarily dismissed in the first round. Only once have the Broncos registered double-digit victories.

In a league that fancies itself a plu-perfect meritocracy, the Denver franchise has been mostly about mediocrity since the confetti stopped falling from the sky following the Super Bowl XXXIII victory. As was the case in the Wizard of Oz, it might be time to peek behind the curtain, huh?

And, oh, yeah, Shanahan has hardly distinguished himself as a renowned developer of quarterback talent.

If you have stayed with us so far, and have connected the dots, go ahead and complete the puzzle, the one that leads to Jake Plummer. On Wednesday, a desperate Shanahan paid out a lucrative seven-year contract to a quarterback who but once in his six-year career has thrown more touchdown passes than interceptions in a season.

The media reports have placed the value of the contract at $40 million but, since Denver is famous for signing even its water boy to seven-year deals and then restructuring them to mortgage the future for the present, much of that is probably Monopoly money Plummer will never collect. The educated guess here is that the contract will pay Plummer $15 million-$16 million in its first three seasons, the shelf-life of any megabucks deal anymore, and a $7 million signing bonus.

Which begs the question: Uh, why?

The conventional wisdom is that Shanahan will be a remaker of Plummer's flagging career, that his tutelage will salvage the veteran player's talent, that he can enact the NFL equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld and somehow infuse his latest project with the knowledge between his own ears. Yet where is the empirical evidence to suggest Shanahan can pull off such a makeover?

Think about Shanahan's recent track record with quarterbacks: He wanted journeyman Bubby Brister to succeed Elway as the starter but yanked him from the role before even one regular-season game in 1999. He anointed Brian Griese the starter, rewarded him with a $39 million contract and a $12.6 million signing bonus on April 16, 2001, and less than two full years later is prepared to jettison the Son of Bob. And could anyone even try to argue that, after three seasons in the Shanahan system and a stint in the NFL European farm league, Jarious Jackson is any closer to being a starting-caliber quarterback?

Nope, as a quarterback tutor, Shanahan earns a failing grade. Were he to have played the lead role of Pygmalion, the legendary old Broadway hit would have been DOA, not SRO. In a sense, Shanahan has become much like his East Coast kindred spirit, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, that other alleged quarterback guru.

In four years, Billick has yet to start the same quarterback in the season opener. And who can ever forget his infamous boast -- "Trust me, Baltimore, I know quarterbacks" -- when he signed journeyman Scott Mitchell to be his starter in 1999? Well, it was alleged that Shanahan knew quarterbacks, too.

Turns out he knew a great one, Elway, when he inherited him. Since the end to Elway's career, all that Shanahan's done is augment the NFL scrap heap comprised of the gang that couldn't throw straight. Ironically, Plummer was a veteran just waiting to be rescued from the wasteland that is the Arizona Cardinals. Yet there is go guarantee that a change of scenery will transform a player with a 69.0 career passer rating into even a mid-level success.

Chew on this for a while: In his six-year Arizona tenure, Plummer posted a 30-52 mark as a starter, a winning percentage of .3658. During his career in the NFL, the ostracized Jeff George had a .3650 winning mark. Pretty hard to reconcile how that .0008 difference translates into millions for Plummer while George sits at home staring at the telephone.

And make no mistake, Shanahan knows the dollars involved in signing Plummer, just as he did with the Griese extension. There probably isn't a box of paper clips purchased in the Denver front office without Shanahan approving the deal, so the check written to Plummer on Wednesday clearly included his approval.

"I know I'm a player who can go out and win ball games," Plummer said on Wednesday, after choosing the Broncos over the Chicago Bears. If that's the case, why hasn't he done so?

Sure, we've heard all the rationalizations that Plummer's awful record is a function of where he played the past six seasons, of how he will emerge as a top-shelf quarterback surrounded by Denver's superior supporting cast. But nowhere in the Official Quarterback Handbook does it contend that a passer can't elevate the performance of those around him. Instead, Plummer was mostly deflating, the onetime rising star in the Valley of the Sun, but who plunged suddenly into a black hole.

Plummer was at his best in Arizona when the Cardinals were in a big hole, many of his own making, in the fourth quarter. Think about Plummer's big games: They characteristically came with Arizona trailing by 28 points, the offense in harum-scarum mode, Plummer drawing up plays in the dirt, big play after big play, but still not enough to win the game.

Hey, give me a quarterback who gets you a 28-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, and then can take the rest of the afternoon off.

It's ironic that one of the things the Broncos contend they like best about Plummer is his improvisational skill. The dichotomy there is that, while Shanahan wants a quarterback who can think on his feet and make critical snap decisions, he also wants a guy who plays within the envelope that he has created. And as for avoiding turnovers, well, Plummer isn't that guy.

Nope, the Broncos coach would prefer a Svengalian hold over his starter. Picture the cover of The Godfather, you know, the puppet strings hanging down, the hand belonging to some unseen body, clearly directing the marionette. That hand, rest assured, belongs to Shanahan.

Just like Steve Spurrier, he wants his quarterback to see a game through his eyes, to be an extension of himself.

And it says here that Plummer will be simply an extension to the growing litany of bad quarterback decisions Shanahan and the Broncos have made.

Beyond the fact he was the best of a sorry litter of free-agent quarterbacks, there is nothing particularly special about him. He lacks pocket stature and is actually frail-looking. His arm is adequate, but will never be considered a howitzer. His accuracy? Plummer has never completed 60 percent of his attempts in a single season.

The people in Denver who feel he is a savior, well, maybe too much time in that thin air has gotten to them.

There is a chance, we suppose, that "The Snake" will ring up a lot of 7's on the scoreboard. We're betting that, more often than not, he's roll snake eyes and, if that's the case, Shanahan and the Broncos will have lost the gamble.

At least in the case of Griese, there was enough empirical evidence to feel the investment was a viable one, enough documentation to reconcile such a huge investment of finances and time. With the contract awarded Plummer, however, the Broncos have taken frivolous spending to new heights.

With the Plummer deal, the Broncos have rewarded failure, all because The Mastermind believes he can reverse history.

Both Jake Plummer's and his own.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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